Phelps Mansion Remembered

Phelps Mansion (c. 1826) was an impressive, three-story, Greek Revival home, that had once stood proudly at 1738 Elm Street, in Stratford, Connecticut. Unfortunately, the home was torn down in 1972. But as a young lad, I had the rare privilege of actually “touring” this home, just a year or two before its demise, along with my father, and three or four of my schoolmates. But more on that later.

The home was built by General Mattas Nicholl, as a gift to his daughter and son-in-law, Captain George Dowdell, who was about to retire from life at sea. The center hallway of the home, designed by Mrs. Dowdell for her husband, was reminiscent of the main deck of his clipper ship: twelve feet wide, and seventy feet in length, with twin staircases leading to the “upper deck”.

Old drawing of Phelps Mansion on Elm Street, Stratford, Connecticut.

Rendering of Phelps Mansion, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Vol. XXIV, 1878, p. 34.

Six large chimneys and their fireplaces served the home, with three situated at each end. The front entry was comprised of a classical pediment, supported by four, massive Doric columns, and the interior also featured much fine elaboration, including chandeliers, and finely carved paneling and molded plaster work. All in all, Phelps Mansion had been an exquisite example of the high Greek Revival architecture of its day.

Following the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Dowdell, the home was sold, in 1849, to Rev. Eliakim Phelps, a Presbyterian minister who moved his family down from Massachusetts. The Phelps family resided there until 1859, when they had sold the home to Moses Beach, founder of The New York Sun. The home was later taken over by Moses’ son, Alfred, who had been a long time editor of The Scientific American, and also ran a private school out of the home, called The Stratford Institute.

Then, in the 1940s, Phelps Mansion was converted into a rest home for the aged, and ultimately became the Restmore Convalescent Home. It was operated as such until the late 1960s, when it was purchased by Alliance Medical Inns, who intended to construct a new hospital on the property, while utilizing the home for office space. But financial problems prevented this from happening, and the home was boarded up and abandoned in 1970. A series of set fires and much other vandalism took a considerable toll on the place, and Phelps Mansion was finally demolished, in March of 1972.

Photo of Phelps Mansion, from Wilcoxon's History of Stratford, Connecticut.

Photo of Phelps Mansion, on Elm Street. From Wilcoxon’s History of Stratford.

Now, those of you familiar with the legend of Phelps Mansion (often referred to as “The Stratford Knockings”) will recall that it was during the Phelps family’s tenure there, in the early spring of 1850, that all the “trouble” began. For it was at this time Rev. Phelps began making claims of other worldly goings-on in his home, which grew over the upcoming months to include stories of continual knockings on walls, objects launching of their own accord and hurtling through the air, windows and furniture being smashed, Phelps children being levitated and carried by unseen forces across rooms, and groups of mysterious effigies formed from the family’s clothing and positioned in ways that appeared to mock Christian mass.

Reports of this activity continued until the end of October of the same year, when Mrs. Phelps and her children left their home to winter in Philadelphia. They returned the following spring, in 1851, and the Phelps family continued to reside at their home on Elm Street, peacefully, for another eight years. But all of this led to Phelps Mansion receiving much notoriety at the time, and, indeed, forever after, as a haunted house. In fact, it’s often cited as one of the worst cases of malevolent poltergeist activity ever recorded, with many contending this haunting to have even been demonic in nature.

Photo of the interior of Phelps Mansion, showing the first floor central hallway and double straircase.

Photo of the interior of Phelps Mansion, showing the first floor central hallway and double staircase. From Wilcoxon’s History of Stratford.

Now, as a committed rationalist and unapologetic disbeliever, I don’t buy these stories; in fact, I categorically deny these events ever happened. As far as I’m concerned, they were fabricated by Rev. Phelps, a man well noted for his fascination with occultism. His family undoubtedly colluded with him in this hoax, and their wild tales were readily received by an enthusiastic public, who in turn were enabled by a press that seemed fully determined to convince its readership of the truth of these fantastic claims.

In fact, if you study the original newspaper and journal articles of the day, you’ll find the reporters relied heavily on hearsay and second-hand testimonies of various “invitrants” to the home, many of whom went unidentified. Profuse and deferential pleadings as to the “high stature” and “unquestionable integrity” of Rev. Phelps, his family, and even the unidentified “eye witnesses”, were used by the reporters to bolster their accounts. This style of reporting is completely at odds, of course, with modern standards for objectivity, accuracy, and independent verification, and hardly would’ve lent itself to piercing the thin veil of a hoax.

Beginning of an article from the Cambridge Chronicle, Vol. V, No. 18, May 2nd, 1850.

Beginning of an article on Phelps Mansion from the Cambridge Chronicle, Vol. V, No. 18, May 2nd, 1850. Note how the article begins with a plea for its own veracity, by claiming the authority of its sources.

But things seemed much different to me, back when I was about ten or eleven, and I was captivated by these supernatural stories. My friends and I often rode our bikes past the boarded-up and vandalized Phelps Mansion, and occasionally stopped there. The front doors were always open, but we could never muster the courage to get beyond the front foyer and into the central hallway.

One day, my dad, clearly intrigued by our quixotic tales of tilting at poltergeists, proposed taking me and my friends there, so we could properly explore the place. So, armed with many flashlights, and my dad, we finally made it into the house, thoroughly investigating the first and second floors. I recall a relatively modern kitchen in the rear, with subway tile and steel sinks. Then we ascended one of the double stairs, and found a number of old steel bed frames and wheelchairs in the various second floor rooms. When we finally reached the third floor, we encountered some squatters up there (all of earthly origin, and smoking weed), and sensing it was time to leave, finally descended the other stairway, and headed out.

The following year or so didn’t bode very well for Phelps Mansion. I recall passing it one day and noticing that one of the large Doric columns had been pulled out of place by vandals, and was left lying on its side, on the stone porch. Reports of flagrant vandalism, fires, and squatters continued, and when it was announced the home would be demolished, a number of local residents fought to save it, but to no avail.

Image of the demolition of Phelps Mansion.

Demolition of Phelps Mansion in 1972. (Image Credit: New England Society For Psychic Research).

Epilogue

In my opinion, the real tragedy here (beyond the demise of the home itself) is that Phelps Mansion will never be remembered as anything other than a haunted house, all because of one nineteenth century owner’s elaborate hoax, and a gullible public who, back then as now, were all too willing to embrace, elaborate upon, and perpetuate that hoax. To this day, the Phelps Mansion hoax continues to be expanded in small increments, in online forums and blog posts, by the dwindling few who remember the place.

Furthermore, the entire corpus of searchable information on this lost Greek Revival mansion is focused exclusively on the paranormal manifestations that were claimed to have taken place there. Nowhere does one find Phelps Mansion mentioned in any of the architectural surveys and inventories of the previous century. Nor did the famed architectural historians of the early twentieth century (J. Frederick Kelly and Norman Isham, in particular) ever visit or record this home (as far as I’m aware) during their visits to Stratford. Did they deliberately avoid it because of its tainted history? Probably not. But it’s still unfortunate that none of them had considered including it in their surveys of historic Stratford homes, because Phelps Mansion would then have had at least some other account of note, beyond its alleged paranormal manifestations.

Did Phelps Mansion’s paranormal reputation hasten its demise? Absolutely. When I was young, and the mansion was still extant, everyone, but everyone, in town knew of it, and knew its story. When the home was finally boarded up and abandoned by Alliance Medical Inns, that highly publicized, paranormal cachet made the place a powerful magnet to all the local vandals and other miscreants who couldn’t resist it. And they managed to completely destroy the home over the course of two years. I know this for fact, because I’d witnessed this history first hand. In the end, this fine home was destroyed by humans and their collective foolishness, and not by poltergeists.

Do I think people should refrain from perpetuating stories of paranormal manifestations in certain historic homes, in the interest of protecting them? Absolutely not. We live in a free society, and people are (and should be) free to express, disseminate, and even embellish these claims, as they please. But by the same token, rational preservationists need to proactively call out the folklore and local myths for what they are, and educate the public that these stories don’t represent the true cultural value, meaning, and histories of these buildings. It’s unfortunate, but the idea of a “haunting” is just one more of those ingrained prejudices that many harbor against old homes, right along with “they’re cold and drafty”, “difficult to maintain”, and “impossible to adapt to the requirements of modern life”.

In a forthcoming article, I’ll walk you through the more prominent of the original, published accounts of “The Stratford Knockings”, and point out the numerous credibility gaps that make these old reports completely collapse under a critical eye. I’ll also take you through some of the more ridiculous embellishments to the earlier tales that have been floated in more recent times.

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes and their preservation and restoration, improving the energy efficiency of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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2 Responses to Phelps Mansion Remembered

  1. Great story, Probably best your dad took you all away from the hippy pot smokers!!! BTW, you probably meant “revival” in your first sentence, not “rival.” But it’s a fun typo! I want to see a haunted house. Please make this happen in one of your land holdings.

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks for catching that typo, Cutes! I totally missed it….and yeah, there’s no doubt that, had my dad not been there, all of us kids would’ve gotten stoned that afternoon :-)

      And regarding haunted houses, I’ll have you know that my own house is possessed right now, by multiple demons that’ve all assumed the form of squirrels. The horror!

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